The Virgin Islands
by Inke Piegsa-quischotte
Climbing the 99 steps towards Black Beard’s Castle in the center of Charlote Amalie, the capital of St. Thomas, my eyes met with an unexpected sign: World Amber Museum and a tiny arrow underneath. I had always connected ‘amber’ with St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea but not with the Caribbean. Naturally, my curiosity was aroused and I followed the arrow to find out what it was all about.
The whole structure of the ‘steps’ complex is a labyrinth of stair, twists and turns and I ended up in a café. The young server who stood outside was most helpful and pointed me in the right direction. Nevertheless, I walked past the entrance twice because it was a dark doorway from which emanated roaring jungle sounds and all I saw were tropical trees swaying in the dim light.
But, as I learned later, it was the right place and the jungle motive represents the tropical rain forests where amber is won from in the Caribbean.
Although I walked past the entrance on my first attempt, I knew nevertheless that I was in the right place, because on the next landing was a stunning sight: a waterfall cascading down two stories and made of over 12,000 individual pebbles and pieces of amber from all over the world. Water is running over the amber and the reflecting sun gives the impression that you are looking at a waterfall of pure gold.
Retracing my steps towards the jungle sounds, I dived into the dark doorway, walked along the planks which lead through the rain forest and alighted into a mysteriously illuminated room which sparkled everywhere. Much to my surprise I was the only visitor at the time and had the guide who doubles as a shop assistant at the adjacent museum shop all to myself.
She was a very knowledgeable lady and explained to me how amber had been won and appreciated in the Caribbean for ages and that it sometimes even served in lieu of money. Whereas the amber of the Baltic Sea is pale to honey coloured, the Caribbean counterpart comes in dark green and, very rarely, even in blue.
Showcase after showcase exhibit the most stunning examples of amber with enclosures of leaves and insects.
Replicas of famous pieces from the St. Petersburg Winter Palace and Amber Room catch the eye in the middle of the room. There is a jewellery chest and a set of chess made from different coloured amber, all held together by hooks and cuts without the use of a single drop of glue. It’s not only the amber which fascinates the visitor but also the extraordinary skill and craftsmanship which have created these stunning pieces.
“Look at the Caribbean take on Columbus’s arrival in these waters,” the girl said. And she guided me to a show case which contains replicas of the ‘Pinta’, the “Nina” and the “Santa Maria” made of the semi precious stone and swimming on a sea of amber.
Modern day artists don’t by pass amber either. I looked at a vase with a bunch of flowers. The girl flipped a switch and the whole thing….moved!! Absolutely amazing. I stared at the insects and leaves contained in huge polished chunks of the most transparent amber I have ever seen.
Because I love jewellery, I could hardly tear myself away from the museum shop. The pieces were just too pretty, although some, like a pendant, were nearly too huge to wear. I settled for a bracelet of amber beads reaching in color from light pale, to dark brown and the famous Caribbean green. I was surprised to note how light amber is, but that explains of course how the amber pieces just float shore and can be gathered in the sand. Books about the history of amber, the amber trade in the Caribbean and many more lovely things in the shop make for beautiful gifts and a worthwhile souvenir as a reminder of an unexpected discovery on the way to Blackbeard.
If You Go:
Admission tickets are sold in the café.
While you are there don’t miss to visit the Danish furniture in the Governor’s house in the same complex.
Visit the café too, it is a shrine to backgammon!
Update August 6, 2020 – The World Amber Museum was located in the 1829 Hotel in St. Thomas at 29-30 Kongens Gade, Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands 00802. However, according to contributors on Yelp, the 1829 Hotel is now closed.
About the author:
Inke Piegsa-quischotte is an ex-attorney turned travel writer and novelist. She writes for online travel magazines and has two novels and a travel guide to Galicia/Spain published. She lives between Turkey and Miami.
All photos by Inke Piegsa-quischotte.